A Look at What’s Happening in US Climate Policy…

Post-Lieberman Warner: How We Got Here and What It Really Means For Us

Local and global devastation and an authentic national outcry to tackle the climate crisis has created a defining moment in climate legislation – a moment characterized by a climate bill frenzy that’s seated corporate lobbyists, traditional enviros, Wall Street economists, lefts, rights, labor unions and presidential candidates at the same table. Since 2003, with wider acceptance of the crisis of global warming, the political palette has gradually and strongly shifted to the taste for climate change policy. On the menu in June was the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, a compromise piece of arguably the most viable climate protection legislation to come before congress thus far, gaining more support than any climate bill before it. For a piece of legislation lauded as the future of US climate policy, the bill fell painfully short of an effective policy, paying familiar lip service to inadequate protection of our communities from climate change impacts while making unjust concessions to industries that would leave our air as unbearable as our energy bills.

Lieberman-Warner failed to pass in the Senate earlier this month, but it has still undoubtedly set the stage for the next round of national climate policy discussions that will grace congressional chambers in the immediate future. The death of Lieberman-Warner was not so much a failure (or success) of the legislative process as it was a mechanism that has catapulted US climate policy into a new arena, where our communities now have another opportunity to engage in the fight for a better policy. This is why it is so important to have knowledge of the history, architecture and pitfalls of the legislative process to effectively strategize for the next battle in climate policy. This is a crash course on what’s been going on in climate policy in the recent past, and what this means for the future of our communities.

The Lieberman-Warner bill was the result of 5 plus years characterized by a history of bi-partisan bill-breeding in the Senate, which began in ’03 with a pioneer bi-partisan bill proposal – the first version of the McCain Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. Since then, with competing bills, new proposals, shifting sponsors and ongoing amendments, the process to get consensus on one major bill (Lieberman-Warner) became a trial and error showdown of legislative survival of the fittest. Early 2007 witnessed the height of the climate bill frenzy as Congress sifted through some dozen or so potential bills for debate in an all-star tournament of Senator tag-teams fighting it out to build enough support for their pet bill to pass subcommittee, and to come out on top of the global warming hype.

Having already failed twice in 2003 and 2005, Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain introduced the third version of the Climate Stewardship Act in January of 2007. But by July of 2007, as support for the bill dwindled, Senator Lieberman finally changed his approach and switched right-wing dancing partners, announcing his intention to craft a new bill with Senator John Warner. News of the proposal sparked growing support as elements of the bill circulated until the Senators formally introduced their new bill, entitled America’s Climate Security Act (S.2191), in October. Thereafter, with the support of Senator Boxer and other noteworthy endorsements, Lieberman-Warner became the remaining standing champ of the climate bill debate.

Lieberman-Warner cleared two major hurdles in the Congressional process, by passing subcommittee (Senate Subcommittee on Private Sector and Consumer Solutions to Global Warming and Wildlife Protection) in October, and then made its way through committee (Senate Environment and Public Works Committee) in early December. But even with that, the bill and its supporters could not muster the 60 votes needed to make it off the Senate floor, even with the significant mark-up it received in the substitute amendment done by Senator Boxer in May. The bill finally entered debate on the Senate floor in early June, and during a week of messy, tense discussions and negotiating maneuvers, the Democratic leadership moved for cloture – a vote that, if passed, would have ended debate and moved the bill to a full vote, thereby putting an end to Republican filibustering and opening the floor to amendments on the bill. However, the motion for cloture failed, gaining only 48 of the required 60 votes. As a result, Lieberman-Warner was pulled from the floor, ending its legislative life, at least until new proposals are brought up in the next Congressional session. Although Lieberman-Warner failed to become law in this session of congress, it has certainly boosted the interest and awareness of the climate policy debate. The struggle now is no longer a matter of votes, but rather a matter of making sure that a well-informed, well-debated foundation for climate justice is in place for what comes next.

If we have learned anything at all from the process of sifting through the platter of climate bills debated over the past few years it is that the chefs on Capitol Hill have little taste for variation. Despite heavy criticism and existing arguments for other market-based approaches, heretofore cap & trade legislation has been the backbone of all climate policy debates thus far, including Lieberman-Warner. While cap & trade legislation holds its own general pitfalls[i], as an emissions reduction scheme, the trading system crafted by Lieberman-Warner’s architects itself has drawn harsh criticism from an array of opponents. Simply put, the bill is weak, and its implications are unjust. The most common, and most compelling, opposition to the bill points out how – even in its improved, amended version – the bill settles for weak emissions reductions targets, allows unprecedented concessions to the coal industry and, as emphasized by many justice-based groups, places the impacts of higher energy costs on the poor and communities of color – those lease able to afford them.

But perhaps the most fundamental problem with the Lieberman-Warner bill is that its targets for cutting carbon emissions are far too low. Science[ii] tells us globally we need to cut emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Lieberman-Warner regulates its emitters under a target of 71% below 2005 levels by 2050, or only 63% below 1990 levels. According to analysis by the EPA, if you include all other sources of carbon emissions, Lieberman-Warner will ultimately cut overall US emissions to only 25% below 1990 levels.[iii] Even more problematic, the amended version leaves room for greater emissions with the inclusion of an emergency offramp designed to keep the price of credits from getting too high – automatically putting even more credits into the market (increasing the emissions cap even higher) if the price exceeds a certain range. These weak regulations on emissions produced a bill with no backbone and set a risky stage for the future, making it even less likely polluters will ultimately make reduction targets over the bill’s 40 year lifetime. Alternately, strong targets now would push investment to develop and implement major, innovative technologies that will actually make a difference.

Another major threat of Lieberman-Warner is how it would allocate its pollution credits. Lieberman-Warner unabashedly gives much of the permits away for free, and to corporate polluters, no less. Instead of selling all of its credits to these polluters through an auction[iv], the bill would give away some $600 billion worth of credits over its lifetime. As a study by Friends of the Earth[v] clearly underlines, the heaviest polluters – namely the coal industry – gets close to half of those permits. This would give the biggest threat to our planet the best advantage.

From the beginning, environmental justice groups have been dissatisfied with Lieberman-Warner. When Senator Boxer announced her substitute amendment in May, one of the most touted provisions, made in response to growing criticism of the original bill by community activists, was an increase in the amount of assistance the bill would give to low-income communities who would hurt most from higher energy costs and job transitions to renewable energies. But in reality, the amendment was only a small improvement and the bill continued to lack sufficient substance to address community needs. This is because, generally, the bill uses revenues from auction profits and filters the money ineffectively through different entities that are to fund the programs that assist low-income consumers.

More fundamentally, Lieberman-Warner lacks accountability to communities and denies them a strong voice in the process. The bill was negotiated and developed largely behind closed doors, under a severely rushed time frame. The bill simply lacked any provisions for community input or oversight. We are now given a new window of opportunity to inject our voices in the debate that will shape future legislation. With the failure of Lieberman-Warner, there is no expectation to pass a bill in Senate this year. But conversations will not stop as the frenzy continues.

Better bills are being proposed. In fact, amongst a handful of proposals circulating in the House right now, Congressman Edward Markey has announced one of the most comprehensive bills to date. Clearly building off of criticism from past bill debates, Markey’s “Investing in Climate Action and Protection Act,” or iCAP, boasts better targets – 85% by 2050 – and essentially 100% auction of its credits – starting at 94% of total allowances in 2012 and reaching 100% in 2020. Not to mention, iCAP returns over half of auction proceeds to low- and middle-income households through rebates and tax credits, investing the remaining half in programs including clean energy tech, energy efficiency and green jobs training and assistance. Not ideal, but much improved, what Markey’s bill indicates is that there can be a clear movement for future policies that build on the pitfalls Lieberman-Warner presented, but only if we remain vigilant.

As new bills are being crafted and put on the menu for the next round of debates, we need to be sure to put in our orders for what our communities demand.

[i] Resources on general cap & trade legislation:

· The EPA’s website has a collection of information: http://www.epa.gov/airmarkt/resource/cap-trade-resource.html

· Or, for a comprehensive, introductory powerpoint presentation by Dr. Holmes Hummel, explaining the mechanics of cap & trade policy: http://www.thunks.net/Cap-and-Trade.htm

[ii] IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, the science behind 80 by 2050 at: http://www.ipcc.ch/

[iii] EPA Analysis of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008 http://epa.gov/climatechange/downloads/s2191_EPA_Analysis.pdf

[iv] Read Jim Barrett’s issue brief The True Cost of Free Pollution Permits for further reading on the arguments for auctioning permits instead of giving them away to polluters for free.

[v] Windfalls in Lieberman Warner Global Warming Bill by Friends of the Earth. Read the analysis here: http://www.foe.org/pdf/Lieberman_Warner_2-1_Update.pdf.


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